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Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, May 2007

Boris Tchaikovsky composed his First Symphony in 1947, at about the time of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory, where Shostakovich was one of his teachers. Shostakovich was impressed by the symphony and recommended it to Mravinsky, who agreed to give the first performance. These were the dark Zhdanov years, which had ostracised Shostakovich as well as many other Russian composers. Anyone belonging to Shostakovich’s circle was also regarded with much suspicion. As a result, the first performance of the symphony took place in 1962 conducted by Kondrashin.

The First Symphony is traditionally laid-out, in four movements with the Scherzo placed second. The first movement, roughly in modified sonata-form, opens with a pensive tune played by the strings, that progressively expands generating new themes and variants. Some fragments will keep re-appearing, which helps keep the overall formal and thematic coherence of the whole. The first movement ends calmly and the animated Scherzo cuts-in in full contrast with the preceding music. This is lively and slightly ironic. A whimsical tune played by the clarinet is not unlike some material heard in the later Clarinet Concerto (1957). The third movement is a deeply-felt Largo unfolding without undue pathos. The final movement, actually a set of variations, which some may find inconclusive, is a typical Tchaikovsky product, in that the composer liked to end a work in a deceptively simple way. Some may understandably expect some sub-Shostakovich stuff; but even a cursory hearing will reveal a number of striking differences and many elements that will be regarded as typical Tchaikovsky fingerprints: clarity of thought, clarity and lightness of the scoring and – in the final movement – some childlike, though definitely not childish, innocence. The latter is a recurring feature in many of Tchaikovsky’s later works: the final section of Signs of the Zodiac (1974), the finale of the Chamber Symphony (1967) or the concluding song of the beautiful song cycle The Last Spring (1980). It is clear, though, that Tchaikovsky never rejected the Russian symphonic tradition, but that he could breathe fresh air into it. Similarly, he managed to keep the temptations of Neo-classicism at bay. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony clearly reveals a real though personal symphonist which later works will only serve to confirm.

After leaving the Moscow Conservatory he had to find some way to make a living. He thus worked for the radio and also composed a number of film scores. Two of them, Aibolit-66 (1966) and Balzaminov’s Marriage (1964), are available on Boheme Music (CDBMR908085). While working for the radio he composed a number of incidental scores for radio dramas. He had a particular fondness for his music for Korolenko’s play The Murmuring Forest (1953), the score of which was considered lost, much to the composer’s dismay. However, it turned up in the archives of the Moscow Radio Library and the suite heard here has been arranged from that material. In 1952 he composed some incidental music for Leo Tolstoy’s play After the Ball. Writing such music provided him with many opportunities to enlarge his palette. The music for After the Ball has its share of affectionate parody and tongue-in-cheek irony, without ever overlooking the darker moments of the play. The score consists of a number of dance tunes: a Waltz that might have been written by his namesake; but also some more personal music, such as in March [track 15], that has a fife-and-drum tune redolent of the opening of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé. Tchaikovsky, however, counterpoints it with an ominous modal melody, with strongly expressive results. The Murmuring Forest is actually much finer and certainly more personal. In this Tchaikovsky proves himself a brilliant illustrator; and the score abounds in felicitous touches: the atmospheric opening of the first movement [track 5] and its varied restatement in the final section [track 9].

These early works of Tchaikovsky are really well served by excellent performances that make the best of them. The First Symphony stands out as an accomplished work of substance. This impressive piece reveals a serious, sincere composer, whose music succeeds in being personal, without either rejecting tradition or adopting a more modernistic stance, while overtly eschewing Socialistic Realism. I hope that this, the second Naxos disc devoted to Tchaikovsky’s music (concertos on 8.557727), will soon be followed by many more. I particularly look forward to hearing his six string quartets.

Classic FM, April 2007

Boris Tchaikovsky (no he's not) composed orchestral pieces that touched on the surreal. Thrilling.

Brian Burtt
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Boris, apparently bears no relation to that more famous musical Tchaikovsky, which is just as well: they are both products and developers of the Russian tradition, but they are equally clearly products of their respective centuries. Boris Tchaikovsky’s teachers included Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Shebalin — auspicious mentorship that appears to have produced a significant compositional voice, if one until now little appreciated in the West.

One is likely to wonder, particularly regarding the Symphony no. 1 of 1947: how much does it resemble the work of Shostakovich? Features reminiscent of Shostakovich as well as other Soviet composers of the era are present: pungent brass intrusions, glass-edged string writing, spare and austere orchestration. Tchaikovsky is in this symphony, however, more conservative than Shostakovich or even Vainberg. There isn’t the same level of searing, driving intensity that - depending on how one interprets it - conveys the personal pain of oppression and alienation from one’s society. Tchaikovsky, rather, is interested in deploying the timbres and orchestrations he learned from his teachers for more formally musical argument. He is successful in doing this through the long-line; which is to say, he is a natural symphonist. While this work will not displace any of the twentieth-century “greats,” it makes for compelling listening and deserves to be played in Western concert halls.

The Volgograd Philharmonic, founded recently in 1987, has a lean sound that suits the symphony well. Its founder, Edward Serov, displays a sure control over the global architecture of the music, a virtue not always to be found in better-known conductors.

There is a change of personnel for the two orchestral suites, written to accompany radio dramas. The conservatory orchestra provides a richer sound. Though episodic, as one would expect of incidental music, it should appeal to fans of similar works by Sibelius. After the Ball actually commences with a very Sibelian waltz.

A page in the liner-notes features the Boris Tchaikovsky Society. This group, of which the composer’s widow is a founder and many Russian musical luminaries are members, “organized” these recording. They note, “the Society welcomes everyone who admires the music of this great Russian composer. It will be delighted to answer any inquiries and to send scores.”

Naxos has also recorded the composer’s Piano Concerto (8.557727). I hope that, in their typically systematic way, they will commit his remaining three symphonies to disc.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2007

Had Boris Tchaikovsky been born at the end of the 19th century, his music would have made the perfect bridge between his illustrious named predecessor and the era of Prokofiev. In the event he came into the world in 1925, the three works on this disc coming from his earliest compositional period between 1947 and 1953. A pupil of Shostakovich and Myaskovsky, it is to the latter that he owes most allegiance, his music here living in a tonal world, his thematic material highly attractive. As a newcomer to his output I can only comment that the three works recorded are devoid of that angst we find in other Russian composers in the second half of the 20th century. His orchestration in the First Symphony is always interesting though I guess some of the harmonies are not intended to be quite as pungent as in the Volgograd's performance. Tchaikovsky became in demand as a writer of music for films and radio plays, and, as is often the case with such music, the scores were seemingly of no lasting value, and it was not until after his death that The Murmuring Forest was discovered. In five highly charged sections it is very different to the Tolstoy's After the Ball for which Tchaikovsky provides some infectious dance melodies, before the story turns sour in the final contorted dance. The playing of the Saratov Conservatory orchestra is in a much different league, suave, well tuned, while they do enjoy a far more sympathetic acoustic. In sum a most enterprising, interesting and enjoyable release that I most happily commend to you.

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